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Testing and Excavating Burial Sites: A Guide for Archaeologists | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Conducting Archaeological Survey or Testing Within the Boundaries of a Burial Site

A Guide for Archaeologists

Testing and Excavating Burial Sites: A Guide for Archaeologists | Wisconsin Historical Society

Before you begin working within the boundaries of a human burial site, you should know what you are legally allowed to do.

Limited Appropriate Subsurface Testing

HS2.04(2) allows archaeologists to conduct "limited appropriate subsurface exploration" within the boundaries of burial sites with the permission of the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. These are conducted to determine if there is a potential for intact human burials within a planned project area — not to determine whether human burials actually are present or absent.

Examples of limited subsurface exploration techniques include:

  • soil cores
  • soil borings
  • remote sensing
  • shovel tests

There is no requirement to perform "limited appropriate subsurface investigation" at all sites. However, it can save your client money when a project area has already been disturbed. If it can be determined that there is no potential for intact human burials in your project area, additional archaeological monitoring may not be necessary.

Authorization to conduct limited appropriate subsurface explorations should be obtained before conducting work within uncataloged or cataloged site boundaries.

To obtain authorization, email Kimberly Cook or call 608-264-6493.

Excavation and Monitoring: Disturbing a Burial Site

Most excavation within the boundaries of human burial sites requires formal authorization from the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Examples of archaeological activities requiring formal authorization include:

  • stripping
  • trenching
  • test units
  • large-scale excavations

To request authorization to conduct work within the boundaries of a human burial site, download and submit a completed Request to Disturb a Burial Site form.

Authorization should be obtained for both uncataloged and cataloged site boundaries. Submit your request as far in advance of fieldwork as possible to allow the required time for comment and review.

You may not start work until the review period for your request has passed and you have received written authorization to proceed.

Only one permit to disturb a burial site is needed per project. In some cases, the permit may be obtained by the archaeologist or archaeological consulting firm engaged to conduct the survey. In others, the permit may be requested by the contracting agency, the agency's agent, the landowner or the landowner's agent.

If the planned fieldwork is on non-Federal public land (State, County, Civil Town, or Municipality), you will need to obtain a signed Public Lands Permit from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Removing or Exhuming Human Remains

If human bone is discovered during your archaeological survey or excavation, you must report the discovery immediately.

  1. Notify the local police or sheriff's department so that they can document the discovery and confirm that it is not related to a missing persons or criminal case.
  2. Notify Kimberly Cook at the Wisconsin Historical Society at 800-342-7834 or 608-264-6493.
  3. Stop excavation at that location until you have received authorization from the Wisconsin Historical Society to continue. Limited authorization may be granted inorder to determine whether or not the remains represent a human burial site or what type of burial site has been discovered.

To exhume human burials from a burial site, you must negotiate a contract with the Wisconsin Historical Society and obtain authorization prior to removal. The provisions of the contract will be determined by your particular situation. The contract will, at minimum, establish a timeline and procedures for removal of the remains, analysis of the remains and submittal of a final report to the Society.

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Have Questions?

To negotiate a contract to exhume human remains from an archaeological site, contact Kimberly Cook by phone at 608-264-6493, or by email below: